One of Freedom’s Finest Hours: Statesmanship and Soldiership in WWII

Roland R Witte
World War II Veteran

Roland R WitteRoland R. Witte, a 1940 graduate of the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, was a naval aviator in the struggle for Guadalcanal, including the Battle of Santa Cruz. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Presidential Citations. Following the war he worked for Lockheed and Hughes aircraft companies.

On September 9-13, 2001, Hillsdale College held a seminar entitled "One of Freedom's Finest Hours: Statesmanship and Soldiership in WWII." Nine historians and five veterans gave presentations. Following are excerpted reminiscences of three of the veterans.

…As we approached the American task force [on October 26, 1942, following an air battle with Japanese fighter planes and a torpedo attack on a Japanese cruiser], we observed the USS Hornet dead in the water and our own carrier, the Enterprise, skillfully dodging what was the fifth and last bombing attack of the morning.

I recall observing a remarkable piece of seamanship: A wounded Japanese plane crashed atop the forward turret of one of our destroyers, engulfing the bridge as well as the turret in flames. The destroyer’s skipper immediately increased the ship’s speed and turned into the swells. The third swell swept over the bow and washed the burning wreckage overboard. The destroyer then resumed its position as if nothing had happened.

As we waited for entry into the landing pattern, a Japanese fighter came at us with a 2000-foot advantage in altitude. But instead of pressing his attack, he put on a beautiful display of aerobatics—slow rolls, lazy eights, loops, etc. He was either trying to impress us or scare us to death. We went into a defensive maneuver, and bless his heart, he never did attack—remember, we were out of ammunition…

That afternoon, I was on station in a patrol above our task force when I picked up a call from the Hornet requesting fighter assistance. I immediately headed in that direction, expecting orders from the Enterprise to proceed. No such orders came. Reaching the halfway point, I even looked to the Enterprise’s bridge to see if they were sending me blinker signals. Nothing. I had no alternative but to return and resume my station, and I learned later that six Japanese torpedo bombers had attacked the Hornet…

That night was dark as could be, depth charges going off all around, damned lonely. But the next morning was beautiful. Looking out across the water, I could hardly believe the events of the previous 24 hours had occurred, except for the fact that the destroyer abeam of us was missing its bow. Cleanup operations continued as we steamed for New Caledonia for repairs, and later in the morning, following services, 54 body bags were slipped into the waves…